The Missouri State Penitentiary was constructed in the early 1830s to serve the newly admitted (1821) state of Missouri. Jefferson City had been designated the state capital in 1822, and Governor John Miller suggested that the state's main prison be constructed there to help the city maintain its somewhat tenuous status against other towns trying to obtain the capitol for themselves. James Dunnica, a master stonemason who built the first Capitol building in Jefferson City in 1826, was appointed to oversee construction of the new prison, and $25,000 was allotted by the legislature for expenses. The facility opened for business in March 1836, the same month as the fall of the Alamo in Texas.
Prisoners were employed during the 1830s in making bricks; the initial prison population consisted of one guard, one warden, fifteen prisoners, and a foreman for the brick-making operation with an assistant. Eleven of the fifteen prisoners were from St. Louis, and all were incarcerated for larceny except for one, who was imprisoned for stabbing a man during a drunken brawl.
On the evening of September 22, 1954, there was a major riot at the Missouri State Penitentiary. It started when two inmates faked illness to attract two guards. Once the guards arrived, inmates ambushed them and took their keys. The inmates then ran down cell blocks and corridors, releasing other inmates in the process. During the incident The Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Missouri National Guard, and police departments from Jefferson City, St. Louis, and Kansas City were called in to help quell the riot. When it was all over, four inmates had been killed, 29 had been injured, and one attempted suicide. Four guards were seriously injured. Several buildings were burned, with damages estimated at 5 million dollars. No inmates were able to escape during the incident. Burned buildings and other damage from the riot would remain visible for the next ten years.
In the summer of 1996, the Missouri State Penitentiary was experiencing a lot of tension between officers and convicts. The Superintendent and Major Eberle reinstated the Search and Response Team. The team managed to ease the tension and help slow the contraband coming into the penitentiary.
On January 6, 1989, inmate George "Tiny" Mercer was executed. It was the last execution to take place at the Missouri State Penitentiary and the first execution by means of lethal injection. The execution took place in the facility's disused gas chamber.
Before April 1989, the State of Missouri's male death row was located at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Death row inmates were held in a below-ground unit and were isolated from other inmates. Death row inmates did not leave their special death row facility, and all services were brought into the unit. Each death row inmate was allowed one hour of exercise per day in a fenced area next to the death row facility. Missouri Department of Corrections said, "With restrictions on movement and limited access to programs, conditions of confinement for death row inmates mirrored those found in other states," and, "As with other states using prison facilities constructed before the turn of the [20th] century, conditions at Missouri State Penitentiary were less than favorable for both death row inmates and staff." After a legal challenge, the Missouri Department of Corrections began to use an internal death row classification system with privileges awarded by behavior, changed the medical services delivery procedures, and provided a "privacy room" where death row inmates could attend religious services